Those of us watching Rovers for our sixth or seventh decade know only too well how quickly 10, 20, 25 years can flash by virtually unnoticed, plans abandoned, once regular haunts neglected, dear old friends seldom seen or even thought about, and it’s amazing in some ways that Saturday sees Rovers return to what was such a familiar old stamping ground for the first time in 24 years.
Shivering and usually miserable afternoons on that open end at Boundary Park seem like yesterday, never mind a couple of early Premier League wins with the comfort of an actual roof to protect us from the elements on a ground from which if you went due East, the first natural objects you would encounter would be the Urals.
(We did meet Oldham at home in the first round of our glorious 2001-02 Worthington Cup campaign… 10 points if you can name the lad who scored his only Rovers goal that night, answer at foot of column.)
And it’s easy to forget that Rovers and Oldham Athletic were in the same division for 20 of the 23 seasons between our first relegation to the third tier in 1971 and Oldham’s relegation from the Premier League in 1994.
As now, Rovers had fallen from top echelon to third in five years while Oldham’s glory years had hardly survived beyond cotton’s heyday – runners-up in both First Division and FA Cup during an era when Bob Crompton was skippering us to titles.
As the rest of the mill and tourist towns of Lancashire’s teams dropped out of football’s elite one by one during the 1960’s – only Blackpool and Bolton would return, and they only very briefly in the following decade – clubs like ourselves and Oldham (“Home of the Tubular Bandage,” a sign on a bridge welcoming you to the town modestly but proudly says) were left to compete for trinkets.
We looked on almost in unfettered envy as they won the Anglo-Scottish Cup and got the funds to build a new stand – now demolished and replaced – by topping something called the Ford Lookers Fair Play League (I think) and trousering the hundred grand, practically twice as much as we’d ever spent on a player at he time.
Our fortunes were so closely entwined and Boundary Park was such a regular stopping point for our supporters during those two-and-a-bit decades that many of us were on first-name terms with local landlords and had what we considered our own personal annual parking spaces outside the same nearby houses,
There are certain parallels and subtle differences between the December 1971 visit and this weekend’s, another in a curious sequence of fixtures which will see Rovers, barring an unkind FA Cup first round draw, play only one game in the months of October and November more than 30 miles distant from Ewood.
Both clubs had fallen on hard times but unlike today any sense of optimism over a swift return to the Second Division had dwindled away among the travelling support. I’m pretty sure it was the first away game I was allowed to travel to without an adult, aged 12, on a Ribblesdale coach with blokes plunging bottle openers into Watneys Party Sevens and pouring them into glasses filched from the Adelphi or the Star and Garter on the Boulevard.
Rovers had played 20 league games by the time a late Dave Shaw goal equalised Tony Field’s opener and had won just five of them.
The result was certainly an improvement on the previous Saturday’s, when Oldham had won 1-0 at Ewood. (The respective attendances were uncannily similar – 7,593 at Ewood, 7,538 at Oldham).
But it’s entirely possible that today, with those stats, we could have been looking at our third manager of the season a week later. Back then with a vague belief that Ken Furphy was as capable of turning this @#/? round as anyone else who’d be prepared to come to Blackburn it was more a case of: “Something will happen,” as a philosophical John Lennon suggested to his infuriated fellow Fabs looking for suggestions when their van broke down by a motorway.
Promotion was already looking unattainable barring a miracle, an outcome which Tony Mowbray last week virtually admitted would see him handed his P45.
For the next couple of decades, the Latics were, if anything, often a step or so ahead of us. They won the Third Division Championship a year before we did, maintained Second Division status while we were relegated again briefly in 1979 and beat us to the top flight by a year and stayed up, thus cementing their “founder members of the Premier League” label a few weeks before we did likewise.
In the late eighties, under Joe Royle, their cup exploits, if not their awful plastic pitch, won the hearts of the nation as the likes of Arsenal were vanquished under the Boundary Park floodlights culminating in Wembley appearances in the 1990 League Cup Final and FA Cup semi.
However they were doing at the time though, a visit to Oldham habitually ended in misery with some notable exceptions, just as they generally fared badly here.
The lowlights are too numerous to itemise individually, although a 5-0 defeat on Good Friday 1979 was, remarkably, only the second-worse result of a weekend which saw us lose at home to Burnley to practically rubber-stamp relegation 24 hours later.
Another which sticks in my mind for the silliest of reasons was a horrid 4-2 spanking on Good Friday 1988. The match had been brought forward to a noon kick-off and one of the lads I worked with had arranged for Bacup Cricket Club bar to be opened- pre match bacon butties, pints etc – at 9.30am
Our plan to set off at 9am from Lock Street in Oswy was scuppered when one of the chaps, Joycey, failed to appear until 10.15am as he hadn’t put his watch forward an hour when the clocks changed the previous Sunday. His excuse that as he was a pool attendant at Waves he had no need to went down as well as you can expect from a bunch of beer-deprived boys with a frantic dash to make the match foisted upon them. I think we only managed two swift pints at Lanehead.
The names of Roger Palmer, Frankie Bunn and Andy Ritchie still cause Rovers fans the night terrors as the desperate days are recalled, just as Oldham fans and goalkeepers must break out into a cold sweat over the uttering of the four syllables “Simon Garner.”
There were good times but they were decidedly infrequent.
In the run-up to a snowy Christmas in 1981, our Boxing Day game against Oldham was switched to Boundary Park at short notice…they were even ahead of us having undersoil heating, see.
Rovers fans were rewarded after a treacherous journey by a grand display and a 3-0 win, Faz flicking Noel Brotherston corners on at the near post for Garns and Norman Bell to clip home.
I remember a thrilling 3-2 win on Boxing Day 1973 too, Richard Dinnis in caretaker charge. They actually won the Third Division that year.
Another stylish display under Jim Smith in October 1978, just days before I went away to Uni, marked the start of one of the most enjoyable runs of football I’ve ever seen from any Rovers team with Hird, Bailey, Brotherston and Wagstaffe outstanding. i hitch-hiked here and there to see them every weekend, the highlight a ride to Ninian Park with Bill Fox!
Jack Lewis, a footballing centre-forward of no mean ability, got badly injured after scoring at Oldham that night and though he came back for sporadic appearances, was never the same again. Both my 18-year-old and current incarnations romantically believe that side could have gone up if Lewis had stayed fit…or indeed, even been replaced at a time when Rovers’ directors made Scrooge look like Roman Abramovic.
In the first two Premier League seasons all our Boundary Park ghosts of the past were thoroughly exorcised by Ripley and Shearer et al. What exactly had the problem been?
Little did we realise when they slipped quietly out of the Premier League in 1994 that it would be almost a quarter of a century till we met again on equal terms.
Today, our neighbours, who should know this league as well as anyone having just spent 20 consecutive years in it, are probably even more stricken than are we.
Owned by an American anxious to get shut, a raft of summer signings approved by someone patently other than manager John Sheridan (who not unexpectedly departed) they have remarkably been steadied a little, as clubs often are by a caretaker who is a fans’ favourite, by club stalwart Richie Wellens.
This despite the players not being paid for September, an iniquity thus far not visited upon us even by the incompetent Venkys.
The supporters don’t have the luxury of a local evening paper to report on distressing goings on, The Chronicle having sadly folded, but Wellens has piloted the side to two league wins and a Checkatrade victory, no mean feat considering Sheridan washed his hands of it all.
Even Jack Byrne, another of those strange impulsive and ultimately unwanted loan acquisition follies Rovers have dabbled in all too frequently, has made an impact, and the scoresheet on occasion. Gates however have fallen spectacularly with less than 3,000 at the win at home to Peterborough.
Rovers will once again, as at Spotland, very possibly have more, and certainly more raucous and expectant, fans present than the hosts.
Tony Mowbray and his side must take advantage of this run of games at which the volume of travelling support possibly renders the atmosphere even more conducive to a performance than the sometimes spectral Ewood ambience.
With bottom side Plymouth at home on Tuesday followed by Portsmouth at home, Rovers first 13 games will have included fixtures against nine of the current bottom half of the table.
There will be sterner tests ahead in far-off places with a fraction of the backing so points stacked up now are precious.
One hopes Tony has done a little more research and preparation than he did for our Checkatrade conquerors Bury. His admission that he rather chucked the team on without really thinking about it was almost as astonishing as the statement about being surprised by the quality of Bury’s (a team we play again within a month) left back.
Having managed at this level before you rather think he might be aware of who everybody’s players are. No wonder the scouting system is due an overhaul.
It was the kind of daft thing everyone will forget about if we win the important stuff but my goodness, he could have chosen his words better.
Now the World Cup spots are almost sorted perhaps we may see Charlie Mulgrew selected less often for Scotland, whether of his own or some forward-looking coach’s accord, which would help with the mini fixture pile-up which has seen us collect a couple of games in hand but fall out, temporarily we hope, of the top six.
One hopes so, these international breaks were a bloody nuisance when everyone in your league had them, now with virtually everyone playing they’re even more intolerable and never-ending.
Thank goodness for the Under-23s for punctuating the tedium and providing another hugely enjoyable 90 minutes’ entertainment on Monday, although visitors Cardiff played their part in the spectacle with their experienced Scottish international full-back Callum Patterson maybe edging out our excellent Daniel Butterworth as Man Of The Match with a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw. (Patterson ironically a player Owen Coyle looked to bring into Rovers).
Rovers were unlucky to miss out on full points (it was a cup, but a group, don’t ask me any more complicated ones) due to a stoppage time leveller.
The livewire, bustling Joe Nuttall got another couple although he will possibly rue not notching a nap hand with a penalty and a couple of other good chances missed.
Butterworth gave the kind of display we’d like to see from Harry Chapman when he starts and his brilliant goal illuminated the Leyland night more than anything I’ve seen since Frank Sidebottom was on at the Civic Hall and personally helped dish out hotpot during the interval.
They really are a joy to watch, this lot.
Thanks to all who read and support the column in such encouraging numbers on a weekly basis and to the new folks running the BRFCS website who have given it a wider audience. Riversider 23 and Old Blackburnian give tremendous back-up on the odd weeks when I’m unable to supply the piece and both are an essential read.
It’s good to look forward to weekends with a bit of optimism and one hopes some success will give relief to and convert even the more spiteful among us, or as a great sage once said: “That a spirit of understanding will convert them from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”
- A) Darren Dunning scored Rovers second after Matt Jansen put us ahead